“From a certain point on, there is no more turning back. That is the point that must be reached.” Franz Kafka, the Zurau Aphorisms, n. 5.
When Kafka Meets the UK’s Family Court
Fiona Padfield’s New Fiction Rings True to Survivors
By Helena Cavendish de Moura
The evidence was clear, fastidiously documented. The medical expert’s testimony suggested abuse. All leads pointed towards a logical outcome. But in Fiona Padfield’s new novel, Allegation 17, we enter the UK’s Family court system where logic is closer to Kafka’s Trial than of modern-day jurisprudence. The author has taken some risks in writing this novel, based on a true story.
“This book was written out of a searing sense of injustice and despair and desperation that a mother was prevented from protecting her child,” said Padfield, an established writer who was discouraged to publish this controversial novel.
“It shows how the effect plays out on an individual psyche. How it ricochets across the extended family and beyond.”
Set in an idyllic Welsh village, Allegation 17 tells the story of a single mother and her legal struggle to protect her child from unsupervised visits with an unstable father whose history of domestic abuse and questionable sexual behavior is not enough to convince the court.
It is an all-too-familiar scenario with devastating endings for women in the UK where the secrecy of the courts, designed to protect victims, can have the opposite effect. It is, to some, a disguised gag-order designed to intimidate. It is an indictment of a system survivors claim punishes the innocent.
“Freedom speech is alien to British justice,” said Padfield. “In a criminal trial, Journalists are admitted. Justice is open. But in Family Court, only selected journalists are allowed, the material is restricted. They can’t just report on what goes on,” said Padfield.
“I think the book is important because currently, the only information coming out Family Courts is through legal representatives or vetted journalists which means it is still tightly controlled,” she said.
It puts on trial the very institutions that are here to protect – Family Services, the judiciary, the police – wracked by prejudice and presumption. But the book does more than advocate for women. It is a deeper study into our psychological makeup, how humans can survive trauma from feeling marginalized by justice.
“ Although this particular story is about a woman, I would like to point out that it is not just mothers who are badly burned by the Family Courts. Fathers also get damaged in its wake.”
The story is told by the inner voice of a woman facing insurmountable obstacles as she struggles from one hearing to another. Padfield’s rich narrative and vivid imagery helps us understand the emotional journey of a victim of sexism, her despair and solitude, the theatrics of a legal system apparently blind to suffering.
She is exhausted by the bullying and betrayal of individuals and institutions whose role should be to support and protect.
“When I say the story plays out on the an individual psyche, this includes all the added pressures such as home visits by social workers, psychiatric services check- ups,” said Padfield.
“Going to court is one of the most traumatic experiences. Everything about one’s psyche is questioned. The things one would say to a psychiatrist could suddenly up for grabs,” she said.
Her narrative shifts from bitter experiences to the healing of the present. Her vulnerability and emotional breakdown as she seeks to protect her young children eventually make her whole – strong enough to make her voice finally heard.
“At core, it’s about survival. Surviving despair. Surely, it shouldn’t be the role of the Family Court to push parents towards suicide,” Padfield said.
Through this woman’s inner voice, Padfield maps a woman’s fragmented thought process. Like many This form of Post Traumatic Disorder is all-too-familiar and it comes back to haunt them in the court.
Rachel, the protagonist, is sent to a Court Psychiatrist to be evaluated. Her ex-husband isn’t.
“The husband’s medical notes don’t undergo the same tooth-comb scrutiny as Rachel’s,” she said.
Allegation 17 is also timely: a petition to reform the UK Family court is gaining traction and survivors’ groups are raising their voices at last.
According to a 2016 study by the Women’s Aid and Queen Mary University of London, court harassment of women prevailed in Family Court and that children’s lives were at risk because victims were not being given safe or fair hearings.
The report, What about my right not to be abused?” Domestic abuse, human rights and the family courts, is critical of the UK courts’s policy of allowing an abusive ex-partner to cross-examine a survivor, breaching “…the survivor’s human right to be free from degrading treatment.”
The studies showed that unsupervised contact with an abusive parent was most likely to be awarded in the cases outlined in the report as a result of a “systematic gender discrimination and a culture in the family courts” that silences women and fails to protect the human rights of survivors, adding that women were often blamed for suffering abuse.
“There is a petition kicking off going to Theresa May about corruption in the Family Courts. This is timely for my book but complete coincidence. “
“I hope my book may bring comfort to mothers and fathers currently going through the system, knowing they are not alone in their despair.”